E-tickets printed and ready to go. We’ll be using the Cicerone guidebook as our main source of route info, possibly backed up by a GPS if I can find a GR5 gpx track to download.
With our train tickets down to Geneva booked and travel insurance sorted, the prospect of walking the GR5 across the Alps this year is fast becoming a reality. The famous month-long section of the GR5 (the ‘Grand Traverse of the Alps’) needs little introduction, being a very popular walk among European long distance hikers, a number of whom have also blogged about their time on the trail. These blogs have been a source of information and inspiration for me, and two I have particularly enjoyed are those by LongDistanceTrail and brownandbird. LongDistanceTrail has produced an atmospheric video of his hike and also an travelogue e-book, while bownandbird’s blog mixes lively commentary with some great landscape photography. When Barry and I were discussing the best way of using our precious leave allowance this year, we could not think of any other way we would rather spend our time than trekking through the springtime pastures and still-snowy passes of the high mountains. The GR5 has all the key ingredients of a hiking adventure, and despite our previous trail experience, we fully expect it to be both tough and rewarding in equal measure. With less time on our hands to plan and prepare for this trail, it will be a challenge to be ‘ready’ for our start date, but despite this, my overwhelming feeling is one of joy, to be returning to a way of life that I love more than any other. For his part, Barry is surprisingly keen too…I think he misses the hiking life more than he admits!
The route of the GR5 (in red) with its variant options. Our first 2 week section will run down to Modane, and we hope to do the second 2 weeks from Modane to Menton (using the GR52 varient) in September. Source: Cicerone guide GR5 by Paddy Dillon
The alpine section of the GR5 runs from Lake Geneva to the Mediterranean (approx 450 miles), and within this basic route there are a number of high and low level variants we can choose depending on time, weather and how wild we want to route to be. The GR5 appeals to us because it crosses several distinct ranges on its way to the sea, starting with the main Alpine massif itself and then on through the Vanoise, Queyras and Mercantour. As hikers, we’ll get to experience the remote, rugged interiors of these places, and see them at their atmospheric best, thanks to the immersion that comes with walking and wild-camping. Neither of us has really spent any proper time in the Alps or the other ranges, and we are looking forward to exploring their pristine, high places, where the quality of the landscape and wildlife will bring us back to the heart of why we love to hike. Compared to our previous trails in Spain, the GR5 is very well appointed when it comes to services such as shops, restaurants and refuges, and I hope this will help us keep our food weight down. I don’t expect us to have to carry more than 3 days food at any one time.
In contrast to the GR’s 11 and 1, where we had the luxury of time to walk them end to end, current constraints mean that we have to walk the GR5 in two sections. All being well, we hope to scrape enough time together to do both sections this year, ideally two weeks in early July followed by two final weeks in early September. Failing that, we’ll aim to complete the second half next year. Although this is a practical solution, it still feels a bit of a shame to cut the trail up like this, and is at odds with our ideal mode of hiking as a longer, continuous journey. On the positive side, walking for only two weeks at a time will feel more like a proper ‘holiday’, and will also help avoid that bone-weariness that comes with months on the trail. On the other hand, I fear we might still lose some of the magic of the GR5 as a connected journey. Long trails are more than the sum of their parts, and the GR5 in two sections does not quite have that same inspirational quality as an uninterrupted month-long epic across the mountains to the sea. This loss is not just about physical continuity; it is also about what happens on the inside when we hike as well. It takes time for me to attune to trail life, and with just two weeks, the hike might well be over before I have properly relaxed into it. For me at least, this will mean working harder than usual to set aside anxieties and open-up to the experience quickly. Part of my strategy to deal with this is to involve Barry more with the decision making on trail, so I don’t just carry all the daily questions and conundrums in my own head.
Taking a breather during hill training on a stunning South-Downs evening.
We have chosen to start section one from Lake Geneva in early July, and this has two main advantages, namely that the mountain meadows will be in full bloom, and also that it puts us just ahead of the main holiday season, which begins in mid July. Being ahead of the holiday season will help us avoid possible crowding and over-stretched facilities on the busy Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB), which the GR5 coincides during some of the first week. The only drawback to starting in mid-July is the possibility of crossing snow on the high passes, something which will push our comfort zones and demand a bit more skill and judgement. I have heard from other hikers that the GR5 is a little easier than the Pyrenean GR11, but with many days requiring between 1000-2000m of climb, the GR5 certainly sounds like it’ll be tough enough, especially with our full packs on.
Weekend training hike along the Hangers Way. through the humid green hills of Hampshire. Thank-you to Barry and Madders for providing us with a picnic mid-hike and helping with the logistics!
The first two weeks of the GR5 from Lake Geneva will take us up and over the main Alpine range and through the Vanoise, before arriving in the town and transport hub of Modane. Depending on any variant routes we decide to pick, we’ll have walked somewhere between 185- 217 miles. At first glance, the main variant route I am interested in is the GR55 option, which splits off from the main GR5 and traverses the heart of the Vanoise national park. This also appeals because it is slightly shorter than the main route, thus relieving some mileage pressure- the elevation profile looks more forgiving too. Given how spectacular and challenging we expect the route to be, two weeks is not that long to cover nearly 200 miles, but we’ll put in quite long walking days, starting at dawn and walking into early evening. Furthermore, without the luxury of time to ease into our pace, we’ll need to hit the ground running fitness-wise if we are to make our prescribed distance and still enjoy what we are doing. For this reason, our physical training, more than anything else, has been the focus of our preparation in these (quickly vanishing) days and weeks before we leave.
Barry tackling Beacon hill in the midday heat on a recent training hike. A cheese sandwich and cup of tea were waiting under a shady tree at the top!
Our training regime is not really a chore, we are lucky to have the South Downs on our doorstep and have been out after work on some spectacular evenings recently. We have chosen a couple of locations, one to build pure strength on very a steep gradient and another for endurance/cardio fitness on a more prolonged hill climb. All this is done with our full pack-weight (13kg) and the company of a confused Jack Russell, who can’t understand why we keep walking up and down the same hill! Once a week, we also try and get out for a longer hike (15 miles +) to improve distance stamina, especially for Barry, who has done far less hiking than me this year. To cover our distance on the GR5 in the time available, we’ll have to average about 12 miles a day over mountain terrain. The South Downs are obviously nothing like the Alps in scale and ruggedness, but we’re making the most of what we have locally, and Barry has quite surprised me how good he still is on the hills, and by how motivated he is to get his strength and fitness up. Between training sessions, we try to walk with our packs on as much as possible, even if it’s just taking the dog out locally, as it all helps acclimatize to the pack-weight again. At the end of our previous hikes, walking with a pack seemed more natural than walking without one, and we both agree that getting them back on again is a familiar and strangely comforting experience!
For the gear junkies out there, this is the kit that we’ll take on the GR5, the main difference being I’ve now downsized to an Exos 48 rucksack. The stuff in the middle is shared-out between us.
Our hiking gear needs only minor changes for the GR5, so I’ll not be writing much about this beforehand, but I believe that we’ll be walking lighter than we have on any major hike before. The main changes are an upgrade to our water filter to a Sawyer Squeeze (see recent Instagram post for an explanation) and more substantial sun protection (SPF50 gloves and hat) for Barry. Our gear list can be found here. I have not decided yet how I’ll blog from the trail, I plan a form of photo-journal with commentary as before, but depending on our schedule, may not be able to write it up until we get back. I hope to post more regular pictures on Instagram so you can keep up with our progress there, just click on the pictures in the sidebar of the blog homepage.
The next few days are looking far too busy with work and other commitments to prepare properly for a serious hike, but in many ways the time can’t go fast enough for me; my mind often drifts back to the GR1, which unbelievably we finished almost a year ago now, and I miss those long and light-filled days with what I can only describe as a feeling of heart-ache. Our philosophy in striking out to attempt the GR5 this year is the same as back then; to seize the day and do what inspires us while we can, because life is short and precious and the wild places of this world too marvellous to miss.